How Taj Gibson became X-factor during Knicks' playoff run

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Alec Burks, Taj Gibson celebrate vs. Hawks
Alec Burks, Taj Gibson celebrate vs. Hawks

In a fun change of pace for Knicks fans, this season’s team captured headlines all year long, but for the right reasons. Their best player evolved into an All-NBA, Most Improved Player, and alongside his coach installing a top-three defense, carried New York to home court advantage in the first round of the postseason.

As much as Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau deserve their praise, they’re also the first to say the success stems from everybody on the roster, hence the “Big 15” moniker. And so the rest of the team also get their due: Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley for bringing sparks off the bench, Reggie Bullock and RJ Barrett for surrounding Randle with spacing and defense, and the list goes on.

However, has enough been said about Taj Gibson and his contribution to this season? At 35 years old and playing the most physical position in the game, one would think he should be spending his days in Cabo, not getting clawed by Clint Capela fighting for a rebound. Though if he were, the Knicks would be much worse off in their dream season.

New York entered the 2020-21 season with two traditional centers in Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel, but quickly realized they’d need support. The two made a dominant rotation up front but both provided the same relative skill set -- rim-running and dunking on offense, protecting the paint on defense -- with relatively similar frames.

They were also getting beaten up a bit and most could sense one would end up on the injured list soon enough. With Thibodeau not a fan of playing Randle or Toppin more at the five, the Knicks signed Gibson two weeks into the season.

The year prior, Gibson was their starting center, and a dependable one over the more hyperactive, inconsistent Robinson. But now he was a year (and pandemic) older with a missed training camp and signed up to be third-string muscle and veteran leadership. He ended up being much more.

As the Knicks foresaw, Robinson went down due to injury, and Gibson became the team’s backup center. In poor matchups for Noel, Thibs would even close with Gibson. Despite taking a supposed step back in role, Gibson went from playing 16.5 minutes per game last year, to 20.8 minutes this season.

It’s not hard to imagine why. Gibson stayed dependable, without the stretchy arms or leaping ability of his peers. The NBA-level defensive rotations Robinson and Noel made, Gibson mastered before they hit puberty. He knows where to be in Thibodeau’s system, usually before anybody else, slides into position keeping low and contests straight up. It’s fundamental, but damned effective.

New York’s elite defense actually improved with Gibson on the court, with opponents scoring 4.3 fewer points per 100 possessions once he entered the game. What he lacked in bounce he made up for in effort and energy. After a defensive stop he was likely at least partially responsible for, he’s attacking the glass, using his wide base to box out and strength to yank balls his way. Per 36 minutes he averaged just shy of 10 rebounds.

But Gibson’s contribution isn’t 20 minutes of nostalgia and hustle porn, he actively brings things to the table his other centers don’t. He’s stronger than either Robinson or Noel, both leaner types, thus has better success guarding the beefier bigs in the league like Joel Embiid.

His value gets emphasized even more on offense. These Knicks struggled early on that end, facing zones without the requisite creation required to break them. When the ball movement gets mucked up by a rolling center who can’t space the floor or quickly deliver swings to the weak-side shooters, enter Gibson.

He’s no 20-point scorer, but the vet forward can still hit the mid-range jumper, finish inside with strength or deftness, but most importantly make plays for others instinctively. No center on the roster can be trusted as much as Gibson to catch the ball on a short roll, see where the help is or isn’t coming from and make the right read. He’s also shooting 62.7 percent from the field.

Fast forward to Game 2 of New York’s first-round series against Atlanta, where the Knicks trailed by 13 at the half and look befuddled. Thibodeau made a few key adjustments, one of which was starting Gibson in the second half. We know the end result, and while Derrick Rose got his flowers for leading with 26 points, Bullock for hitting big threes down the stretch and Randle for looking like a star again, Gibson quietly did his work.

Plus-17 in 17 minutes in the second half. Six rebounds in that time, three offensive, all huge. Two steals to boot. He finished with 30 minutes on the night.

Without him, the Knicks would have been toast. Not just in Game 2, but the season. If the Knicks take this round, people will run with a lot of Randle, Rose and Barrett footage to mark their victory. But in true Big 15 fashion, the story is a lot deeper than that.